After Life – An Intro and Film Review

On Wednesday evening, December 11, 2019, at the George Eastman House in the venerable Dryden Theatre (pictured above), I was honored to introduce the wonderfully odd and imaginative Japanese film After Life, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

This was my first time introducing a film at the Dryden, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, in my dazed excitement, I forgot to take a photo or even ask a friend to snap one of me at the podium, so you’ll have to take my word for it that I was there. Maybe someone in the audience will vouch for me. I was really there, wasn’t I?

Many thanks to those who braved the cold temperatures of Rochester, NY, to come out and see the show. I hope you loved it as much as I did. As promised, I’m posting my introduction along with some relevant links.

Introduction

I’ve written many stories of science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, and other strange oddities over the years, and I love to explore ideas that pose interesting philosophical questions. After Life is a 1998 Japanese film written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, and its strangeness emerges from the intriguing philosophical question Kore-eda poses: If you had just three days to pick one memory from your entire life — a memory that you would take with you forever and ever into eternity — what would you choose?

To dramatize this question, Kore-eda imagines something like a social services department for the recently dead. The workers there — also dead people — help the new arrivals make up their minds about their most precious memories. Then they all get together and produce short videos of them, complete with actors, costumes, and props. These videotapes become something like passports, ferrying the dead into their personal afterlives.

Now, if this sounds like a crazy idea, welcome aboard, it is a little crazy, even to me, but Kore-eda somehow makes it all feel pretty normal. First, he uses a quasi-documentary film style with extended interview sequences, enhancing these with long silences to ground us in the moment. He also uses 16-millimeter cameras — normally a tool for television — instead of the higher quality 35-millimeters favored in most feature films. The setting is an old, rundown government building, and for the staff who work there, it’s just a regular job, the daily grind, with pre-production meetings, tight deadlines, and overtime running late into the night. It does not take us long to forget the strangeness of his premise, and just settle in for the ride.

After Life is a quiet film, which could have easily become gloomy or depressing, but, as you’ll see, Kore-eda often follows moments of sadness with touches of humor, exploring the lives of his characters with kindness and compassion, ultimately setting us up for what feels like a message of hope and an affirmation of our lives and our humanity.

And while this is certainly a movie about the importance of memory and human experience, Kore-eda also seems to be commenting on filmmaking itself. Are the movies we love an escape into other worlds, or do they serve to bring us closer to this one? It’s a question he leaves open for all of us to ponder.

A few interesting tidbits to think about while you’re viewing:

Kore-eda said in an interview that he got the idea for this film when he was just a boy, watching his grandfather struggle with memory loss and dementia.

His mother had a passion for Hollywood movies — she loved Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine in particular — so, look for the scene in which he cleverly plants this memory inside the memory of someone else.

Kore-eda began his career working on television documentaries, and you will certainly notice many of those influences here. Before filming, he conducted 500 plus interviews with the elderly, and he was so compelled by the truth and authenticity of their voices, he decided to let a chosen few talk unscripted on camera, so you will see several non-professional actors on the screen.

This is only Kore-eda’s second movie, and it did play at Sundance. He has since directed more than a dozen feature films and has won many awards for his other work, including the Jury Prize in 2013 at the Cannes Film Festival (for Like Father, Like Son), and the Palme d’Or in 2018 (for Shoplifters). His newest film, released earlier this year, is called The Truth, and it’s his first movie set outside of Japan (in France), and not spoken in his native Japanese language (French and English). 

After Life won two awards at the Buenos Aires Film Festival — one for Best Film, and the other for Best Screenplay — and The New York Times called Kore-eda “one of Japan’s most original cinematic talents.” So, yes, you are in for a real treat this evening. And so am I. I’ve seen this movie twice, but never on the big screen, so I’m really looking forward to it.

Tonight, we are screening After Life from a DCP on the BARCO projector. The film comes to us from Janus. And our projectionist is Sam Lane, assisted by Zach Neuman from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation.

Thank you, and enjoy the film!

[One final note that I trimmed from my intro: The film is not known in Japan as After Life, but rather, Wonderful Life. I couldn’t uncover why it was changed for release in the West, although it might have been that the title was too close to the American classic It’s a Wonderful Life, and the marketing people didn’t want to invite confusion. But this is just my guess. If anyone knows for sure, or can find out, please feel free to share the info here.]

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